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Am I Doctor Stallman?

Richard Stallman


After receiving 15 doctorates honoris causa — doctorates "for honor", though typically people use the misleading translation "honorary" — I thought I had a clear idea of how they are given. The ceremonies were serious, even solemn, and if others were receiving doctorates honoris causa in the same ceremony, they were people whose achievements impressed me.

So I was shocked to read an article which describes this as a sleazy marketing scheme, and claims that recipients of these degrees are not supposed to call themselves "Doctor."

The article says that universities hand out "honorary doctorates" readily to donors who have essentially bought them, and to performing artists so that they will entertain the students at graduation.

The article is not error-free. For instance, it calls me an "open-source software pioneer," which misrepresents my views and my work. However, what it reports about universities seems to be correct, in the US; a friend told me he had seen that pattern himself.

But my experience is totally different. I am not an entertainer, except for a few minutes when I don the robe and halo of Saint iGNUcius, and that is comic relief for a long, serious talk. I never donated money to the universities that gave me doctorates, nor could they expect me to. What's more, I never saw such people receive degrees along with me. The other recipients, when there were others, were likewise being honored for their work, not as a quid-pro-quo.

Why this difference? My doctorates come from universities in other countries, not in the US. I conjecture that buy-a-doctorate and sing-for-your-doctorate are found in the US only. (How sad for the US!)

On all the occasions when I received a doctorate, nobody said to me that I should not use the title of Doctor. Indeed, an academic told me that universities would extend to me certain minor privileges, treating that doctorate like any other. So I began identifying myself as Dr. Stallman.

Of course, I do that in formal situations, in connection with talks, interviews and publications, not in ordinary conversation. Though I do occasionally tell people that they don't need to call me Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Stallman.

Nonetheless, on reading that Florida Atlantic University explicitly says that recipients of doctorates honoris causa are not permitted the title of Doctor, I began to wonder about the policies of the universities which had given me degrees, so I asked people at some of those universities about their policies.

The replies were quite disparate. One said, like Florida Atlantic, that it was not permitted. Another said I should write "Dr.(h.c.)." Another said it had no objection. So it seems that I am entitled to call myself Dr. Stallman.

Why do I do that? The personal reason is that these doctorates recognize decades of work for an important cause, and I am proud of them.

The reason that is beyond personal is so that people who know little or nothing of my career may decide, based on the title of "Doctor", to pay a little attention to that work and that cause, which is the free software movement. That may help us defeat the totalitarian control that today's digital technology is designed to impose.

Copyright 2021 Richard Stallman Released under Creative Commons Noderivatives 3.0 license